A Collection of Thoughts on Grief, the Widow Life, and Hope

This room has seen a lot of life in the nearly 11 years of owning this house. It has been the dwelling place of one of my children, one of my sisters, a pregnant momma, a sister again, two little girls we watched over for a while, and family members coming to stay awhile and help me manage the chaos of life during and after Jesse’s brain cancer showed itself. The last time it saw a coat of paint was when Jess was still living, and I needed a quiet space to write words that was far away enough from the medical facility my bedroom and living room had become for me to focus, but close enough to the chaos for me to tend to my beloved’s ailing frame.

I painted over the last of the peachy pink this morning as I sang along to the songs playing over the little speaker Jesse loved.

Singing is new to me, these days. My voice died with Jesse’s body, and I am just beginning to find it, again.
Admittedly, it still sounds empty without his lilting tenor accompanying me, without his fingers moving fluidly across the strings of his guitar. To me, at least.

Grief goes on and on like this. Painting walls feels like covering up a piece of him, of who I was in the before. Doing a task alone I once did as a team feels empty. Every little everything amplifies his absence. Like filling a balloon with air, his lack of presence stretches to fill space with the nothingness that air in a balloon appears to be. He is everywhere in his nowhere-ness. The aching for him without him to help me through it…this is the great conundrum of losing your person: Their death is the cause of the ache you know they could help you endure, if only they were alive to help you grieve them.

Anyway, I painted a room today, and I sang a little as I did. I’ll start laying the floors this evening. Mundane miracles, these things are, as so many moments are in this temporary life. This space has a new role to fill, a new life to live, a fresh purpose. In the coming weeks, it will be full of instruments and of music and of life. And, I suspect, a good bit of singing, too.

Written on July 18, 2023

I knew it was coming, this long-sought slip of printed paper. I’ve been checking the mail in anticipation of its arrival for days. I’ve been fighting to receive it since Jesse died.

Aspects of widowhood are left to be fully understood by those who bear the title. The quiet fighting to have returned to you what is rightfully yours, often for years, is one of those things. Jess and I, we had time to plan ahead. We did. We knew the laws of our state. Most everything was in my name when he went Home. Only our house and two joint accounts bore his name with mine by the end of our lives as a we. Because of a filing error in the unseen, unknown-to-us-background of our former bank, two weeks after Jesse’s death, our bank accounts disappeared. All you had given us to sustain the lives of myself and my children, were gone in a moment because of human error.

Widowhood is quiet chaos, constant cost, in ways unfathomable to those who have not lived it.

I knew this particular loss would be returned to me and my kids in time. I would not relent until it was so. Still. When I slipped the printed paper from its envelope yesterday, when I saw his name accompanied by the now familiar word “deceased”, an involuntary, shoulder shaking sob overtook my body. All this time later, I was still ill-prepared for the finality of it all. I will soon run out of steps in the lengthy process of closing out his life. This is as weighty a prospect as it is a freeing one. This is an unspoken sacred sorrow of widowhood.

My friends, if you know a widowed person, man or woman, please check in with them. Don’t assume everything is okay. Don’t stop asking just because they have not answered. They are reading and listening to your words, breathing them in with every weary, feeble breath they manage to breathe. Send the awkward text. Mail the goofy card. Leave the uncomfortable voicemail. Tell them the stories about their person you hold in your memories.

The weight of the widowed is great, but they/we aren’t made to bear up beneath it alone. Lend your shoulders to the suffering.

And, those of you doing the suffering…Beloveds, lean on them & weep.🤍

Written in July 2023

The day of Jesse’s funeral, I gathered up his beloved button downs and polo shirts, walked upstairs, and sat on the floor as our nieces and nephews picked one out to keep and wear to his service, if they wanted. After that, I remember placing them in a bag, and…I’ve been searching for them for nearly two years. I had convinced myself they had been accidentally donated.

The kids and I have been cleaning out the garage, the closets, the cabinets…all the spaces where remnants of our former chaos have been hidden in darkness, buried beneath the new life we’ve been living without him. We have a lot of work left ahead of us. It is a difficult and slow job, and I have to stop a lot just to remind myself to breathe. I keep unearthing objects carrying the musty stench of bagged up trauma and ache sitting untouched for two years in a hot garage in North Houston.

His shirts still carry the faint smell of him. I think I wrote somewhere once that Jesse smelled only of death until I began growing gardenias. I plucked a flower from the bush every few days for weeks, bringing the crisp white blooms inside for both of us to breathe in when he no longer had the strength to sit outside. He delighted in touching the soft petals and breathing in their fragrance. That’s the scent I think of when I think of him. Gardenias. Death and gardenias.

The thing is, the one never took the place of the other. The sour pull of his body breaking down mixed in with the lilting, light fragrance of the flowers, formed a scent unique to him.

Small-big things like finding his shirts heavy-laden with must and grief serve as reminders to me of the grace and mercy of his Homegoing. I know when Jesse exhaled this life and inhaled heaven, it was the most delicious, fragrant scent, a smell entirely devoid of his long-coming death. I like to imagine heaven smells of gardenias; and, when I breathe in the perfumed scent of them, I’m breathing in a little bit of what is to come in eternity. Who knows? What I do know is that Jesse is healed and whole, and these shirts need a good washing.

About the Author, Ashley McMillan

Ashley McMillan is a writer and speaker, widow of Jesse, and solo mom of four, the younger three of whom she homeschools. Born and raised in Louisiana, she and her late husband and two boys moved to Texas in 2006 after their house was destroyed during Hurricane Rita, and have lived there ever since. In 2015, her husband, Jesse, was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she began telling the story of God’s faithfulness and goodness in the midst of the darkest of days through written word. She’s been writing through and about Jesse’s illness and death, her life in the aftermath, and the hope of Jesus in it all, ever since.